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Cuban leader Raul Castro says he will retire in 2018

Written By Bersemangat on Senin, 25 Februari 2013 | 18.56

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban President Raul Castro announced on Sunday he will step down from power after his second term ends in 2018, and the new parliament named a 52-year-old rising star to become his first vice president and most visible successor.

"This will be my last term," Castro, 81, said shortly after the National Assembly elected him to a second five-year tenure.

In a surprise move, the new parliament also named Miguel Diaz-Canel as first vice president, meaning he would take over if Castro cannot serve his full term.

Diaz-Canel is a member of the political bureau who rose through the Communist Party ranks in the provinces to become the most visible possible successor to Castro.

Raul Castro starts his second term immediately, leaving him free to retire in 2018, aged 86.

Former President Fidel Castro joined the National Assembly meeting on Sunday, in a rare public appearance. Since falling ill in 2006 and ceding the presidency to his brother, the elder Castro, 86, has given up official positions except as a deputy in the National Assembly.

The new government will almost certainly be the last headed up by the Castro brothers and their generation of leaders who have ruled Cuba since they swept down from the mountains in the 1959 revolution.

Cubans and foreign governments were keenly watching whether any new, younger faces appeared among the Council of State members, in particular its first vice president and five vice presidents.

Their hopes were partially fulfilled with Diaz-Canel's ascension. He replaces former first vice president, Jose Machado Ventura, 82, who will continue as one of five vice presidents.

Commander of the Revolution Ramiro Valdes, 80, and Gladys Bejerano, 66, the comptroller general, were also re-elected as vice presidents.

Two other newcomers, Mercedes Lopez Acea, 48, first secretary of the Havana communist party, and Salvador Valdes Mesa, 64, head of the official labor federation, also earned vice presidential slots.

Esteban Lazo, a 68-year-old former vice president and member of the political bureau of the Communist Party, left his post upon being named president of the National Assembly on Sunday. He replaced Ricardo Alarcon, who served in the job for 20 years.

Six of the Council's top seven members sit on the party's political bureau which is also lead by Castro.

Castro's announcement came as little surprise to Cuban exiles in Miami.

"It's no big news. It would have been big news if he resigned today and called for democratic elections," said Alfredo Duran, a Cuban-American lawyer and moderate exile leader in Miami who supports lifting the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. "I wasn't worried about him being around after 2018," he added.

The National Assembly meets for just a few weeks each year and delegates its legislative powers between sessions to the 31-member Council of State, which also functions as the executive through the Council of Ministers it appoints.

Eighty percent of the 612 deputies, who were elected in an uncontested vote February 3, were born after the revolution.


Raul Castro, who officially replaced his ailing brother as president in 2008, has repeatedly said senior leaders should hold office for no more than two five-year terms.

"Although we kept on trying to promote young people to senior positions, life proved that we did not always make the best choice," Castro said at a Communist Party Congress in 2011.

"Today, we are faced with the consequences of not having a reserve of well-trained replacements ... It's really embarrassing that we have not solved this problem in more than half a century."

Speaking on Sunday, Castro hailed the composition of the new Council of State as an example of what he had said needed to be accomplished.

"Of the 31 members, 41.9 percent are women and 38.6 percent are black or of mixed race. The average age is 57 years and 61.3 percent were born after the triumph of the revolution," he said.

The 2011 party summit adopted a more than 300-point plan aimed at updating Cuba's Soviet-style economic system, designed to transform it from one based on collective production and consumption to one where individual effort and reward play a far more important role.

Across-the-board subsidies are being replaced by a comprehensive tax code and targeted welfare.

Raul Castro has encouraged small businesses and cooperatives in retail services, farming, minor manufacturing and retail, and given more autonomy to state companies which still dominate the economy.

The party plan also includes an opening to more foreign investment.

At the same time, Cuba continues to face a U.S. administration bent on restoring democracy and capitalism to the island and questions about the future largess of oil rich Venezuela with strategic ally Hugo Chavez battling cancer.

(Editing by Kieran Murray and Vicki Allen)

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South Korea's new president demands North drop nuclear ambitions

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's new president Park Geun-hye urged North Korea on Monday to abandon its nuclear ambitions, and to stop wasting its scarce resources on arms, less than two weeks after the country carried out its third nuclear test.

In her inauguration speech, the country's first female president, also called on South Koreans to help revive the nation's export-dependent economy whose trade is threatened by neighboring Japan's weak yen policy.

Park, the 61-year-old daughter of South Korea's former military ruler Park Chung-hee, met with the father of North Korea's current ruler in 2002 and offered the impoverished and isolated neighbor aid and trade if it abandoned its nuclear program.

"I urge North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions without delay and embark on the path to peace and shared development," Park said after being inaugurated on Monday.

Park, usually an austere and demure figure in her public appearances, wore an olive-drab military style jacket and lavender scarf on Monday and smiled broadly and waved enthusiastically as a 70,000 strong crowd cheered her.

Rap sensation Psy was one of the warm up acts on an early spring day outside the country's parliament and performed his "Gagnam Style" hit, but without some of the raunchier actions.

Park's tough stance was supported by the partisan and largely older crowd at her inauguration.

"I have trust in her as the first female president ... She has to be more aggressive on North Korea," said Jeong Byung-ok, 44, who was at the ceremony with her four-year-old daughter.


North Korea is ruled by 30-year-old Kim Jong-un, the third of his line to hold power in Pyongyang and the grandson of a man who tried to assassinate Park's father.

The North, which is facing further U.N. sanctions for its latest nuclear test, which was its biggest and most powerful to date, is unlikely to heed Park's call and there is little Seoul can do to influence its bellicose neighbor.

Park's choices boil down to paying off Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons plan, which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and failed in 2006 when the North exploded its first nuclear bomb. Alternatively, Seoul could try to further isolate the North, a move that resulted in the 2010 sinking of a South Korean ship and the shelling of a South Korean island.

Referring to the fast economic growth under her father's rule, which drove war-torn South Korea from poverty to the ranks of the world's richest nations, Park urged Koreans to re-create the spirit of the "Miracle on the Han".

Park wants to create new jobs, in a country where young people often complain of a lack of opportunities, and boost welfare, although she hasn't spelled out how she will do either.

Growth in South Korea has fallen sharply since the days of Park's father who oversaw periods of 10 percent plus economic expansion. The Bank of Korea expects the economy to grow just 2.8 percent this year and 2.8 percent in 2014.

Park also faces a challenge from a resurgent Japan whose exports have risen sharply after new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe embarked on a policy to weaken the yen currency.

The won has jumped five percent in 2013 against the yen after a 23 percent gain in 2012, boosting the competitiveness of Japanese exports of cars and electronics against the same goods that South Korean firms produce.

Park last week said she would take "pre-emptive" action on the weak yen, but has yet to specify what action she will take.

(Additional reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by David Chance and Michael Perry)

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Syria says ready to talk with armed opposition

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Syria is ready to hold talks with its armed opponents, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on Monday, in the clearest offer yet of negotiations with rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

But Moualem said Syria would continue its fight "against terrorism", a reference to its conflict with anti-Assad rebels in which the United Nations says 70,000 people have been killed.

"We are ready for dialogue with everyone who wants it ... Even with those who have weapons in their hands. Because we believe that reforms will not come through bloodshed but only through dialogue," Russia's Itar-Tass news agency quoted Moualem as saying.

He was speaking in Moscow, a staunch ally of Assad, where he was meeting Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Moaz al-Khatib, head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, told reporters in Cairo he had not yet been in contact with Damascus about any talks, but said he had postponed trips to Russia and the United States "until we see how things develop".

Syria's government and opposition have both suggested in recent weeks they are prepared for some contacts - softening their previous outright rejection of talks to resolve a conflict which has driven nearly a million Syrians out of the country and left millions more homeless and hungry.

But the opposition has said any political solution to the crisis must be based on the removal of Assad, whose family has ruled Syria since 1970. The government has rejected any pre-conditions for talks aimed at ending the violence, which started as a peaceful pro-democracy uprising.


The two sides also differ on the location for any talks, with the opposition saying they should be abroad or in rebel-held parts of Syria. Assad's government says any serious dialogue must be held on Syrian territory under its control.

Adding to the difficulty of any negotiated settlement is the lack of influence that Syria's political opposition - mostly operating outside the country - has over the rebel forces on the ground who appear determined to fight on until Assad goes.

Itar-Tass did not report any further comments by the minister on the prospect for talks and did not say whether Moualem spelt out any conditions for starting dialogue.

"What's happening in Syria is a war against terrorism," the agency quoted him as saying. "We will strongly adhere to a peaceful course and continue to fight against terrorism."

The Syrian National Coalition said on Friday it was willing to negotiate a peace deal, but insisted Assad could not be party to any settlement - a demand with which the president appears in no mood to comply.

U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said Assad had told him he intended to remain president until his term ends in 2014 and would then run for re-election.

The political chasm between the government and rebels and a lack of opposition influence over rebel fighters has allowed fighting to rage on for 23 months in Syria, while international diplomatic deadlock has prevented effective intervention.

Moualem's comments echoed remarks last week by Minister for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar, who said he was ready to meet the armed opposition. But Haidar drew a distinction between what said might be "preparatory talks" and formal negotiations.

Assad, announcing plans last month for a national dialogue to address the crisis, said that there would be no dialogue with people he called traitors or "puppets made by the West".

(Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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Britain's most senior Roman Catholic cleric resigns

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's most senior Roman Catholic cleric resigned on Monday following allegations he behaved in an "inappropriate" way with other priests, and said he would not be going to the Vatican to take part in the election for Pope Benedict's replacement.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who had been expected to take part in the conclave, said he had tendered his resignation to Pope Benedict some months ago as he was turning 75 and because he was suffering from "indifferent health".

The pope, who himself is stepping down on February 28 because of ill health, had decided to accept O'Brien's resignation before he left the role, O'Brien, the archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, said in a statement.

"For any good I have been able to do, I thank God. For any failures, I apologies to all whom I have offended," said the statement, which made no reference to the recent allegations.

O'Brien, who is known for outspoken views on homosexuality, had been reported to the Vatican over allegations of inappropriate behavior stretching back 30 years, according to the Observer newspaper. He has rejected the claims.

In his statement he confirmed he would not be heading to Rome to take part in the election for Benedict's replacement.

"I do not wish media attention in Rome to be focused on me - but rather on Pope Benedict XVI and on his successor," he said.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Michael Holden; editing by Maria Golovnina)

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Iran says it has brought down a foreign spy drone

Written By Bersemangat on Minggu, 24 Februari 2013 | 18.56

LONDON (Reuters) - Iran's Revolutionary Guards have brought down a foreign surveillance drone during a military exercise, the official Islamic Republic News Agency said on Saturday.

"We have managed to bring down a drone of the enemy. This has happened before in our country," the agency quoted war games spokesman General Hamid Sarkheli as saying in Kerman, southeast Iran, where the military exercise is taking place.

The agency gave no details on who the drone belonged to.

In Washington, a Pentagon spokesman said he had seen the reports. He noted that the Iranians did not specifically claim that the drone was American.

In the past, there have been incidents of Iran claiming to have seized U.S. drones.

In early January Iranian media said Iran had captured two miniature U.S.-made surveillance drones over the past 17 months.

Several drone incidents over the past year or so have highlighted tension in the Gulf as Iran and the United States flex their military capabilities in a standoff over Iran's disputed nuclear program.

Iran said in January that lightweight RQ11 Raven drones were brought down by Iranian air defense units in separate incidents in August 2011 and November 2012.

(Writing by Stephen Powell; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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Insight: Spiral of Karachi killings widens Pakistan's sectarian divide

KARACHI (Reuters) - When Aurangzeb Farooqi survived an attempt on his life that left six of his bodyguards dead and a six-inch bullet wound in his thigh, the Pakistani cleric lost little time in turning the narrow escape to his advantage.

Recovering in hospital after the ambush on his convoy in Karachi, Pakistan's commercial capital, the radical Sunni Muslim ideologue was composed enough to exhort his followers to close ranks against the city's Shi'ites.

"Enemies should listen to this: my task now is Sunni awakening," Farooqi said in remarks captured on video shortly after a dozen gunmen opened fire on his double-cabin pick-up truck on December 25.

"I will make Sunnis so powerful against Shi'ites that no Sunni will even want to shake hands with a Shi'ite," he said, propped up in bed on emergency-room pillows. "They will die their own deaths, we won't have to kill them."

Such is the kind of speech that chills members of Pakistan's Shi'ite minority, braced for a new chapter of persecution following a series of bombings that have killed almost 200 people in the city of Quetta since the beginning of the year.

While the Quetta carnage grabbed world attention, a Reuters inquiry into a lesser known spate of murders in Karachi, a much bigger conurbation, suggests the violence is taking on a volatile new dimension as a small number of Shi'ites fight back.

Pakistan's Western allies have traditionally been fixated on the challenge posed to the brittle, nuclear-armed state by Taliban militants battling the army in the bleakly spectacular highlands on the Afghan frontier.

But a cycle of tit-for-tat killings on the streets of Karachi points to a new type of threat: a campaign by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and allied Pakistani anti-Shi'ite groups to rip open sectarian fault-lines in the city of 18 million people.

Police suspect LeJ, which claimed responsibility for the Quetta blasts, and its sympathizers may also be the driving force behind the murder of more than 80 Shi'ites in Karachi in the past six months, including doctors, bankers and teachers.

In turn, a number of hardline Sunni clerics who share Farooqi's suspicion of the Shi'ite sect have been killed in drive-by shootings or barely survived apparent revenge attacks. Dozens of Farooqi's followers have also been shot dead.

Discerning the motives for any one killing is murky work in Karachi, where multiple armed factions are locked in a perpetual all-against-all turf war, but detectives suspect an emerging Shi'ite group known as the Mehdi Force is behind some of the attacks on Farooqi's men.

While beleaguered secularists and their Western friends hope Pakistan will mature into a more confident democracy at general elections due in May, the spiral of killings in Karachi, a microcosm of the country's diversity, suggests the polarizing forces of intolerance are gaining ground.

"The divide is getting much bigger between Shia and Sunni. You have to pick sides now," said Sundus Rasheed, who works at a radio station in Karachi. "I've never experienced this much hatred in Pakistan."

Once the proud wearer of a silver Shi'ite amulet her mother gave her to hang around her neck, Rasheed now tucks away the charm, fearing it might serve not as protection, but mark her as a target.


Fully recovered from the assassination attempt, Farooqi can be found in the cramped upstairs office of an Islamic seminary tucked in a side-street in Karachi's gritty Landhi neighborhood, an industrial zone in the east of the city.

On a rooftop shielded by a corrugated iron canopy, dozens of boys wearing skull caps sit cross-legged on prayer mats, imbibing a strict version of the Deobandi school of Sunni Islam that inspires both Farooqi and the foot-soldiers of LeJ.

"We say Shias are infidels. We say this on the basis of reason and arguments," Farooqi, a wiry, intense man with a wispy beard and cascade of shoulder-length curls, told Reuters. "I want to be called to the Supreme Court so that I can prove using their own books that they are not Muslims."

Farooqi, who cradled bejeweled prayer beads as he spoke, is the Karachi head of a Deobandi organization called Ahle Sunnat wal Jama'at. That is the new name for Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, a forerunner banned in 2002 in a wider crackdown on militancy by Pakistan's then army ruler, General Pervez Musharraf.

Farooqi says he opposes violence and denies any link to LeJ, but security officials believe his supporters are broadly aligned with the heavily armed group, whose leaders deem murdering Shi'ites an act of piety.

In the past year, LeJ has prosecuted its campaign with renewed gusto, emboldened by the release of Malik Ishaq, one of its founders, who was freed after spending 14 years in jail in July, 2011. Often pictured wearing a celebratory garland of pink flowers, Ishaq has since appeared at gatherings of supporters in Karachi and other cities.

In diverse corners of Pakistan, LeJ's cadres have bombed targets from mosques to snooker halls; yanked passengers off buses and shot them, and posted a video of themselves beheading a pair of trussed-up captives with a knife.

Nobody knows exactly how many Shi'ites there are in Pakistan -- estimates ranging from four to 20 percent of the population of 180 million underscore the uncertainty. What is clear is that they are dying faster than ever. At least 400 were killed last year, many from the ethnic Hazara minority in Quetta, according to Human Rights Watch, and some say the figure is far higher.

Pakistani officials suspect regional powers are stoking the fire, with donors in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-dominated Gulf countries funding LeJ, while Shi'ite organizations turn to Iran.

Whatever factors are driving the violence, the state's ambivalent response has raised questions over the degree of tolerance for LeJ by elements in the security establishment, which has a long history of nurturing Deobandi proxies.

Under pressure in the wake of the Quetta bombings, police arrested Ishaq at his home in the eastern Punjab province on Friday under a colonial-era public order law.

But in Karachi, Farooqi and his thousands of followers project a new aura of confidence. Crowds of angry men chant "Shia infidel! Shia infidel" at rallies and burn effigies while clerics pour scorn on the sect from mosque loudspeakers after Friday prayers. A rash of graffiti hails Farooqi as a savior.

Over glasses of milky tea, he explained that his goal was to convince the government to declare Shi'ites non-Muslims, as it did to the Ahmadiyya sect in 1974, as a first step towards ostracizing the community and banning a number of their books.

"When someone is socially boycotted, he becomes disappointed and isolated. He realizes that his beliefs are not right, that people hate him," Farooqi said. "What I'm saying is that killing them is not the solution. Let's talk, let's debate and convince people that they are wrong."


Not far from Farooqi's seminary, in the winding lanes of the rough-and-tumble Malir quarter, Shi'ite leaders are kindling an awakening of their own.

A gleaming metallic chandelier dangles from the mirrored archway of a half-completed mosque rising near the modest offices of Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslemeen - known as MWM - a vocal Shi'ite party that has emerged to challenge Farooqi's ascent.

In an upstairs room, Ejaz Hussain Bahashti, an MWM leader clad in a white turban and black cloak, exhorts a gaggle of women activists to persuade their neighbors to join the cause.

Seated beneath a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Shi'ite cleric who led the 1979 Iranian revolution, Bahashti said his organization would not succumb to what he sees as a plan by LeJ to provoke sectarian conflict.

"In our sect, if we are being killed we are not supposed to carry out reprisal attacks," he told Reuters. "If we decided to take up arms, then no part of the country would be spared from terrorism - but it's forbidden."

The MWM played a big role in sit-ins that paralyzed parts of Karachi and dozens of other towns to protest against the Quetta bombings - the biggest Shi'ite demonstrations in years. But police suspect that some in the sect have chosen a less peaceful path.

Detectives believe the small Shi'ite Mehdi Force group, comprised of about 20 active members in Karachi, is behind several of the attacks on Deobandi clerics and their followers.

The underground network is led by a hardened militant codenamed "Shaheed", or martyr, who recruits eager but unseasoned middle-class volunteers who compensate for their lack of numbers by stalking high-profile targets.

"They don't have a background in terrorism, but after the Shia killings started they joined the group and they tried to settle the score," said Superintendent of Police Raja Umar Khattab. "They kill clerics."

In November, suspected Mehdi Force gunmen opened fire at a tea shop near the Ahsan-ul-Uloom seminary, where Farooqi has a following, killing six students. A scholar from the madrasa was shot dead the next month, another student killed in January.

"It was definitely a reaction, Shias have never gone on the offensive on their own," said Deputy Inspector-General Shahid Hayat.

According to the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee, a Karachi residents' group, some 68 members of Farooqi's Ahle Sunnat wal Jama'at and 85 Shi'ites were killed in the city from early September to February 19.

Police caution that it can be difficult to discern who is killing who in a vast metropolis where an array of political factions and gangs are vying for influence. A suspect has yet to be named, for example, in the slaying of two Deobandi clerics and a student in January whose killer was caught on CCTV firing at point blank range then fleeing on a motorbike.

Some in Karachi question whether well-connected Shi'ites within the city's dominant political party, the Muttahida Quami Movement, which commands a formidable force of gunmen, may have had a hand in some of the more sophisticated attacks, or whether rival Sunni factions may also be involved.

Despite the growing body count, Karachi can still draw on a store of tolerance. Some Sunnis made a point of attending the Shi'ite protests - a reminder that Farooqi's adherents are themselves a minority. Yet as Karachi's murder rate sets new records, the dynamics that have kept the city's conflicts within limits are being tested.

In the headquarters of an ambulance service founded by Abdul Sattar Edhi, once nominated for a Nobel Prize for devoting his life to Karachi's poor, controllers are busier than ever dispatching crews to ferry shooting victims to the morgue.

"The best religion of all is humanity," said Edhi, who is in his 80s, surveying the chaotic parade of street life from a chair on the pavement outside. "If religion doesn't have humanity, then it is useless."

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

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Italians vote in crucial election for euro zone

ROME (Reuters) - Italians began voting on Sunday in one of the most closely watched elections in years, with markets nervous about whether it can produce a strong government to pull Italy out of recession and help resolve the euro zone debt crisis.

Some of the first people to cast their ballots expressed fears that no clear winner would emerge, leading to political stalemate and a coalition that may not govern for long.

"I think we will have to go to elections again ... I expect instability for the next two years," said Vincenzo D'Ouria, voting in Milan.

Italians started voting at 8 a.m. (0700 GMT). Polling booths will remain open until 10 p.m. on Sunday and open again between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Monday. Exit polls will come out soon after voting ends and official results are expected by early Tuesday.

The election is being followed closely by financial markets with memories still fresh of the potentially catastrophic debt crisis that brought technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti to power more than a year ago.

Monti and his wife cast their votes at a polling booth in a Milan school on Sunday morning. His centrist bloc would only enter a future government as a junior partner of a bigger party.

Final polls published two weeks ago showed center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani with a 5-point lead, but analysts disagree about whether he will be able to form a stable majority that can make the economic reforms Italy needs.

Bersani is now thought to be just a few points ahead of center-right rival Silvio Berlusconi, the four-times prime minister who has promised tax refunds and staged a media blitz in an attempt to win back voters.

A huge final rally by anti-establishment-comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo on Friday highlighted public anger at traditional parties.

Grillo's 5-Star movement, made up of political novices, is in third place in its first general election, polls suggest, and popular support from voters across the political spectrum has increased uncertainty about the outcome.

"Italians want change, but you cannot achieve that with Grillo. They are far too inexperienced for the Italian parliamentary machine," said Cristina Rossi, 40, a civil engineer who was on her way to vote for Bersani's Democratic Party in Milan.

"I fear the outcome will be a weak government, but maybe this is just a necessary transition to be able, in one or two years, to chose someone who can really govern Italy."

Italy, the euro zone's third-largest economy, is stuck in deep recession, struggling under a public debt burden second only to Greece's in the 17-member currency bloc and with a public weary of more than a year of austerity policies.


Berlusconi hogged the headlines on Sunday after he used news conference at his soccer club AC Milan's training ground to break the campaign silence imposed on politicians in the day before polls open.

He told reporters that Italy's magistrates were "more dangerous than the Sicilian mafia" and had invented allegations he had held sex parties in order to discredit him.

The 76-year-old billionaire, who is appealing a jail sentence for tax fraud and is on trial accused of having sex with an underage prostitute, was criticized by his rivals for making a political statement during a ban on campaigning.

While the center left is still expected to gain control of the lower house, thanks to rules that guarantee a strong majority to whichever party wins the most votes nationally, a much closer battle will be fought for the Senate, which any government also needs to control to be able to pass laws.

Seats in the upper house are awarded on a region-by-region basis, meaning that support in key areas can decisively influence the overall result.

Pollsters still believe the most likely outcome is a center-left government headed by Bersani and possibly backed by Monti.

But strong campaigning by Berlusconi and the fiery Grillo, have thrown the election wide open. Surveys showed up to 5 million voters will make up their minds at the last minute.

The Interior Ministry urged some 47 million eligible voters in Italy not to let bad weather put them off, and said it was prepared to handle snowy conditions in some northern regions to ensure everyone had a chance to vote.


Whatever government emerges from the vote will have the task of pulling Italy out of its longest recession for 20 years and reviving an economy largely stagnant for two decades.

The main danger for Italy and the euro zone is a weak government incapable of taking firm action, which would rattle investors and could ignite a new debt crisis.

Monti replaced Berlusconi in November 2011 after Italy came close to Greek-style financial meltdown while the center-right government was embroiled in scandals.

The former European Commissioner launched a tough program of spending cuts, tax hikes and pension reforms which won widespread international backing and helped restore Italy's credibility abroad after the scandals of the Berlusconi era.

Italy's borrowing costs have since fallen sharply after the European Central Bank pledged it was prepared to support countries undertaking reforms by buying unlimited quantities of their bonds on the markets.

But economic austerity has fuelled anger among Italians grappling with rising unemployment and shrinking disposable incomes, encouraging many to turn to Grillo, who has tapped into a national mood of disenchantment.

(Additional reporting by Cristiano Corvino and Lisa Jucca in Milan; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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